The “Polak-Katolik” equation is demographically inaccurate for today’s Poland, deeply misleading for describing Poland’s past, and (not least!) filled with enough ideological baggage to trigger excess fees on even the most generous airline. I’ve spilled too much ink over the years in an attempt to debunk the idea that Polishness is subsumed by Catholicism, and I’m not interested in rehashing those tired arguments (those interested could click here or–if you are more ambitious–here).
But the 10th anniversary of John Paul II’s death has prompted a lot of rumination about the contours and dynamics of Polish Catholicism, and that’s a more interesting question. One typically hears that Polish Catholics are the most conservative Catholics, and that Catholic Poles are the most conservative Poles. Like most historians I’m allergic to overgeneralizations of any sort, and this is no exception. It isn’t just a matter of ignoring the voices within the Church calling for a more open engagement with the modern world. Such individuals are a minority nowadays, and have little support within the Polish episcopate, but we certainly don’t want to erase them from view. An even greater problem, though, is that “conservative” is a singularly unhelpful adjective in this case. Many Polish Catholics promote a worldview that is far too radical to conserve much of anything.
One generalization we probably can make is that Polish Catholics are John Paul II Catholics. What does that mean? Not much, to be honest. His very name has become what we call (when we want to sound sophisticated and jargony) an empty signifier. But wow—what a signifier it is! I doubt there is a word or name or phrase in Polish that comes so close to bearing a universally positive value. A survey taken last month showed that 95% of Poles consider Pope John Paul II to be a “moral authority,” compared to only (only?) 84% for Pope Francis. In the United States, surveys show that Catholics seem to be a bit more enthusiastic about the current pope, though it has taken them some time to warm to him. Benedict’s approval rating among American Catholics ranged between 67% and 83%, whereas John Paul II’s ranged between 91% and 93%. Though Francis started at 84%, he has now reached 90%–but 57% have a very favorable view of him (compared to 48-53% for John Paul II). A full 70% of all Americans like Pope Francis, including 68% of those who say that they have no religious affiliation at all.
All these figures show that popes tend to be more popular than Catholicism itself, and that they pull their popularity from across just about every cultural dividing line there is. But in Poland, John Paul II does this to an even greater degree. Let’s face it: there is nothing that 95% of Poles agree upon. Only 75% consider Vladimir Putin to be a threat, and that’s probably the biggest point of consensus in Polish public life today. I doubt that even Pope Francis’ approval rating would translate into an equivalent level of support for any of his specific beliefs, and I know that this is true for Pope John Paul II. Poles might say that they consider him to be a moral authority—but that only stands if we recognize that respecting authority figures and actually obeying them are two entirely different things.